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Figures from the Spanish Government’s Ministry of  Development. Construcción de edificios y obras en edificación: licencias municipales y visados de dirección de obra (Construction and Building Work: Municipal Permits and Project Management Authorisations).

Reversible Building Design: Design for Sustainable Change

Reversible Building Design – BAMB Buildings as Material Banks. E. Durmisevic

Most of the materials currently used in building construction end up as debris when the buildings are demolished. This waste, which threatens the sustainable future of architecture, poses a huge problem. As I mentioned in earlier articles, in Europe alone it accounts for around 34% of all the waste produced in a year, a statistic which gives us a clear idea of its effect on the environment and highlights the importance of reducing it.

It’s nothing new to say that the solution lies in changing the construction process by applying the principles of the circular economy cycle and endowing materials and – why not? – the buildings themselves with value. Neither is it new to talk about the “Buildings as Material Banks” (BAMB) European research project, which is seeking to create tools to do that based on the Waste Management Hierarchy steps of prevention, reuse and recycling. The key to change is clearly to increase the value of building materials in order later to recover them, and this is done by developing and integrating two complementary actions: materials passports (which I discussed here) and reversible building design.

Reversible building design conceives of buildings as easy-to-dismantle units where parts can be added or taken away simply and easily, without damaging either the building or its products, components or materials. This approach, sometimes called “design for change”, makes it possible for buildings to be flexible, adaptable to the future needs of the user and the market and easy to repair, and also to generate less waste, since they themselves are banks of valuable, easily-accessible materials that can be repaired, reused or recovered.

So how do you design a reversible building? A protocol for doing just that has been developed by Dr Elma Durmisevic (University of Twente, BAMB project). Basically, it identifies three distinct dimensions:  spatial, structural and material reversibility. These dimensions come together to produce technical and spatial reversibility, and the way to address each one of them is through design for disassembly.

For spatial reversibility, for example, it’s important to take into account the building’s volume and the design of the communications hub (dimensions, position and capacity). Since the hub is the most permanent element in the building, its design should be as efficient as possible in order to allow the spaces around it to be used with maximum flexibility.

For structural reversibility, a clear-cut hierarchy is needed, based on structure but with separate functions at building, system and component level. This way, interactions between those elements are minimised, facilitating functional and technical autonomy. One very useful concept here is that of shearing layers, which I discussed in this post.

Finally, material reversibility is achieved by means of designs which allow physical exchanges to take place: that is to say, designs with reversible connections that make it possible easily to dismantle, repair and substitute materials and components (bolts, screws, etc.).

Considering that in Spain alone 68% of the rehabilitation licences granted in 2017 included partial or total demolition, it’s clear that the existing building stock is not very prepared to accommodate our present and future needs1. Our task is to contribute a design for change, both in new build and rehabilitated structures. If we fail to do that, we’ll simply be putting the problem off until another day. Charles Darwin was being prophetic when he said the species which survive aren’t the strongest or the most intelligent,  but those which best adapt to change. Let’s start adapting our buildings, before we’re left behind.

Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
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Figures from the Spanish Government’s Ministry of  Development. Construcción de edificios y obras en edificación: licencias municipales y visados de dirección de obra (Construction and Building Work: Municipal Permits and Project Management Authorisations).

Arquitecta especializada en diseño sostenible, eficiencia energética y accesibilidad. Actualmente envuelta en los entresijos de la economía circular, pero también rodeada de diseño gráfico y web, fotografía y de mucho mundo. Combinando todo con ganas e ilusión para buscar nuevos retos profesionales. Como decía Einstein, no tengo ningún talento especial, solamente soy apasionadamente curiosa.

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